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"A blog was a way of making a blank page blink."
Having already made a name for herself as a poet, Ashleigh Young tried her hand at essays, resulting in her most recent book, Can You Tolerate This? A study in many things–among them ambitious youth (coupled with a healthy dose of anxiety)–the book develops ideas that first percolated with the writer in her girlhood in New Zealand and continued to expand as she grew up and discovered more of the world. Later, Young also includes a series of details profiles of interesting individuals. It is raw and real, stirring inspiration in any writer struggling with how to reveal their deepest emotions through their work.
In our interview, Young spoke about the writing process and the aftermath of publishing a very personal collection, as well as how her relationship with writing essays differs from her poetry work.
How did you become interested in writing?
I don't remember ever becoming interested; I just always was, somehow, from when I was very small. But as I grew up I became even more interested when I realised that writers existed. People poured their whole lives into writing. That seemed like a dream. My dad had a friend called Hutch who wrote books. Hutch was his nickname. He had a shed, a bit like a hutch actually, out in the garden, where he went to write his books. Even though the shed was filled with cobwebs and dead bugs, it was also filled with manuscripts and proofs and his ancient typewriter and it was a sort of hallowed space. Seeing this special place where he could be by himself to write made me feel even more invested in the idea of becoming a writer. It wasn't till I was older again that I realised how much of a struggle that life was for him. But by then – it was too late! I had gone and become a writer.
In addition to writing books, you also maintain a blog. Why did you start it and what have you learned about writing from maintaining it?
I started writing it when I moved from New Zealand over to London, and felt at a loss with my writing. I wanted to experiment with structure and voice in a very low-stakes way. It was helpful as a way of trying things out, narratively, seeing if they came off. If they didn't, I could say, 'Well, it's just a blog; it's not like I'm trying to write a novel or anything.' That's freeing, even though maybe it was lazy. A blog was a way of making a blank page blink. It was helpful as an outlet more personally, too. I wrote about some personal stuff that I haven't really written about again, but people who read those things were so kind to me. This was only about five years ago, but I think the internet has changed a lot since then.
I've had long periods of not posting anything on my blog, because I feel too self-conscious. At the moment, I'm using it as a sort of occasional diary, and I usually don't actively share things from it anymore – people can seek it out if they want to look. From keeping a blog I've learned that you can write yourself into the mood for writing. Even if you don't feel like it, you can write your way there. I've also learned that readers are kind and generous, on the whole – I'm always relieved to rediscover this.
Tell us a little bit about your book Can You Tolerate This? How do you come to publish an essay collection?
This book was my attempt to explore a period of immense confusion and awkwardness in my life – to do with my family and my own understanding of myself. Obviously I didn't expect writing this book to resolve any of that confusion! Actually – a few people have become quite angry with me for writing about them, which was a chilling feeling – I thought, oh my god, I've made a really bad mistake. I was about to write, "I don't think my next book will have real people in it" – but I've just realised it does. Damn.
I wrote a large part of this book while doing an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington. The intensity of that year of writing – the compressed period of time, the demands of the workshop – spurred me to write the core of the book. Over a few years after the course I revised those pieces and wrote some new ones that found their way into the book. I knew that I wanted to write essays, because I wanted to write as myself, in my own voice, and I love the essay form – for all that it can be called a 'form'; I know people will argue about this forever. I love the possibility and defiance of the essay.
Photo Credit: Russell Kleyn
Much of your previously published work was poetry. What is your relationship between genres? Does your process differ at all depending on what you write?
Yes, it differs very much. It's hard to explain though. I will admit that when I'm writing a poem I spend a LOT more time just staring at the page. I take very long pauses and anyone who looks at me will probably think I look extremely angry. It's just my thinking face. Maybe a bit of genuinely angry face also. With an essay I tend to leap in like a dog jumping into a pile of leaves. Then clean it all up afterwards. It's really like I just have a different head on my shoulders for each approach. The terrain feels different; ways of measuring time feel different. Although of course with both forms I'm not sure where I am headed exactly until I'm a fair way into it, then I start to gain a little clarity.
Many of the topics covered in the book deal with youth an idea of coming-of-age and understanding yourself. Was there anything difficult in discussing this material and being vulnerable with your readers?
Weirdly, it wasn't at the time. I felt strangely reckless. Maybe it was the euphoria of my MA year – reading these wonderful, fearless writers like Vivian Gornick, and wanting to take risks like that too. And I did have a lot of risks to take. It's only now that I feel more cautious about sharing these things – I'm feeling the smallness of my community here in New Zealand more acutely than before. It's difficult because I still want to write about my personal life – and I'm not sure really where that urge comes from. Perhaps it comes from loneliness, a kind of grasping for connection, or just that base wish to be seen and recognised. It's funny – on Twitter the other day someone was marveling out how they used to share their inner lives, in a way they would never do now. I've become a little more circumspect too. Then again – I recently wrote on The Cut about an intrusive thought I have about wanting to stab my own face, so I still have some work to do.
You also explore a series of historical portraits in the book. Why did you decide to write and include those?
I'm going to be honest: I still don't quite know, other than that I really love those small stories and find those people's stories wildly interesting and beautiful.
What is coming up next for you?
I have a small poetry collection out next year with Victoria University Press. I don't have a perspective on it yet to know whether it's going to be an okay book. It does have some quite grumpy poems in it – the angry face again. It's funny – I work as an editor, and the other day a prolific poet came into the office to talk about his upcoming poetry collection, and although the manuscript has been finished for quite a while, one of the first things he said was, 'Now – you're sure these poems aren't bullshit?' This is someone who has published about 13 very very good books of poetry and several novels and he still has that kind of self-doubt. That was comforting and also horrifying.